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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Boston School Committee unanimously approves sweeping changes to exam school admission criteria following tense public debate

Boston Latin School.
Boston Latin School.John Tlumacki

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The Boston School Committee on Wednesday night unanimously approved the biggest overhaul of the city’s exam school admission process in more than two decades, adopting a new system that should give disadvantaged students a better chance of getting in.

“We have come to a place where we are ready to move this district forward,” said School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson, calling the vote historic.

The effort to change the admission requirements had generated heated debate among parents and a backlash over last-minute political meddling that initially influenced the proposal presented to the School Committee two weeks ago.

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Hours before the meeting started Wednesday, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius stepped into the fray, releasing final recommendations that rejected a politically influenced measure reluctantly advanced by a task force that would have reserved 20 percent of all seats to students with the highest ranking composite scores citywide. The remainder would have been allocated in rank order within tiers based on geography and socioeconomic factors.

Instead, Cassellius favored the task force’s original desire to allocate all seats for Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science through eight tiers based on census tracts. The approach would group together qualified applicants from areas of the city with similar socioeconomic characteristics in an effort to reduce the likelihood that a low-income applicant would compete against an affluent one.

The task force abruptly abandoned the measure at their final meeting two weeks ago after its cochairs warned that they were under political pressure to create the 20 percent set-aside for students with the highest composite scores citywide and that the consequences of not doing so could be severe for the school system.

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The political interference created a backlash among many parents and advocates who pushed to get rid of the 20 percent set-aside, while other parents advocated for a citywide competition for all seats. Cassellius said the backlash factored into her decision to drop the set-aside in an effort to restore public trust in the process.

”What is being considered tonight, I believe to be a huge step forward for our students, especially our students who have not been able to access our exam schools through no fault of their own,” Cassellius told the School Committee as she introduced the final recommendations. “While some of us might wish for a sweeping mandate that would dismantle, you know, ages of privilege and create equitable opportunity with one vote of the School Committee . . . I also know that holding out for a perfect solution could possibly lose this moment.”

The new admission policy replaces a far simpler process that has been used for more than two decades and allocated seats to applicants citywide in rank order based on an equal weighting of their grades and entrance exam scores.

Under the new policy, grades will carry greater weight, comprising 70 percent of the composite score for admission and an entrance exam will make up 30 percent. The entrance exam will be suspended again this fall for those seeking admission for fall 2022 due to disruptions caused by the pandemic, and only this upcoming school year’s grades will be used.

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In changing the entrance requirements, the School Committee and Cassellius took on one of Boston’s most polarizing public education issues, one that often causes lingering racial tensions over the 1970s court-ordered desegregation to flare up again.

For decades, white and Asian students have been admitted to the highly sought after schools at disproportionately higher rates than their Black and Latino peers, and civil rights advocates have long argued that families with means often game the system by using private tutors and admission consultants.

Yet when school leaders have suggested making changes, they have taken heat from families whose chances of admission would suffer or have encountered roadblocks from elected officials who instead argue the district needs to do more to improve its elementary schools.

This time, though, school officials felt emboldened to pursue the overhaul by the pandemic and a growing tide of social justice activism.

The move followed a similar endeavor last year to temporarily suspend the entrance exam and allocate seats by grades and mostly by ZIP codes. School officials said the pandemic created unsafe conditions to administer the test and they seized the moment to experiment with ways to boost diversity at the schools.

The effort proved successful on that front. But it also attracted a lawsuit in federal court from the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence Corp., a group of white and Asian families who argued the school district used ZIP codes as a proxy for race in an attempt to admit more Black and Latino students to the detriment of white and Asian applicants.

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A federal judge ruled against the coalition. But the parents group is hoping to reopen the case after recently released text messages between the School Committee’s former vice chair and another former member revealed they made disparaging comments about white families from West Roxbury during a meeting last October when they approved the temporary admission plan. Those messages never made it into the court record, although other texts from that night did.

Leading up to Wednesday night’s meeting, parents on both sides of the debate intensified their lobbying efforts with dueling online petitions.

And at the meeting, dozens of parents and advocates made their final pleas to the committee during two hours of testimony.

Elena Belle White, a parent at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, said it was not a perfect plan, but urged the committee to approve it.

“There are many of us who would have liked to see a lottery instead of a ranking system, but I support this compromise in part because it limits the extent to which admissions can be easily gamed by those who are privileged and well resourced,” she said. “This plan will work to ensure a more level playing field for students experiencing the greatest challenges.”

Krista Magnuson, a Jamaica Plain parent of a fourth- and sixth-grader, was pleased Cassellius’ recommendations largely mirrored the original task force proposal.

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“I’m really excited tonight at the idea that we’re going to make a great stride forward in equity and access, and that we might not bow to pressure from players who have been unwilling to publicly push their plans,” she said. “Let’s please take this step toward ending systems of inequity that have barred a generation of students from fair access to our exam schools.”

Some said the changes did not go far enough. Stephanie Ward of the parent group Quest said the committee should permanently end the entrance exam.

“The current proposals are not fair, they are not equitable, and they keep a racist exam intact,” she said.

Other argued it went too far, imploring the School Committee to delay the vote and rethink the recommendations.

Nancy Minucci, a former parent representative on the Boston School Committee Nominating Panel, said a measure that gives applicants from high-poverty schools extra points in the admission process penalizes applicants from schools in more affluent neighborhoods, such as the Lyndon in West Roxbury and the Eliot in the North End.

“What is being presented does not give every kid in the city a fair chance,” she said. “You’re opening yourself to huge lawsuits.”

Raul Uppot, a doctor whose daughter is in the fifth grade, voiced opposition to grouping students into socioeconomic tiers instead of keeping a citywide competition.

“I am outraged that you guys are now going to define what tier my 11-year-old belongs to and that, at the current stage, she has absolutely no chance of getting into an exam school, even before she starts studying for a test,” said Uppot, who started the second online petition. “So what incentive is there for other kids just like her who want to work hard and do well?

Judith Nee feared the proposal would deprive children of public employees places at the exam schools.

Cassellius made other changes with her proposal. Most notably, she scrapped a tier exclusively for applicants who live in public housing, are homeless, or are in the care of the Department of Children and Families. She said a subsequent analysis revealed those applicants will have better oddsif they are assigned to a census tract tier based on the last known Boston address the school system has on file for them.

Another change includes lowering the threshold for what is considered a high poverty school, from 50 percent of students being economically disadvantaged to 40 percent, which the federal government uses to dole out Title I grant money. Applicants from high-poverty schools will receive a 10 point increase in their composite score.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.